A spirited English heiress, a dashing cavalry officer and a beguiling Austrian Empress form a love triangle that on first glance may look like charactA spirited English heiress, a dashing cavalry officer and a beguiling Austrian Empress form a love triangle that on first glance may look like characters from a romance novel, but in reality are based on actual people: Charlotte Baird, Bay Middleton and Elizabeth, Empress of Austria. Set in 1875 Victorian England, The Fortune Hunter, by the bestselling author Daisy Goodwin (The American Heiress), is the fictionalization of the life of an ambitious horsemen John “Bay” Middleton and the two women he romances, taking us at full gallop through London’s high society ballrooms, country manor houses and fox hunting while exploring the emotional highs and lows of three very unique people faced with the challenges of personal truth, honor and love.
Miss Charlotte Baird is an intelligent and creative twenty-year old more interested in photography than fashion, beaux, and social decorum. She is also one of the richest women in England. Because she is an orphan, her half-brother Fred manages her Lennox fortune until her majority—and his fiancé Augusta Crewe, the high-minded daughter of an Earl, manages him. While attending a London opera, Fred introduces his sister to a fellow officer, the dashing Captain Bay Middleton. They meet again at the Spencer ball and Charlotte is promptly swept off her feet by his flattery and attentions. (red coat alert) Even though her Aunt Adelaide warns her against the captain’s dubious reputation as a womanizer, and her brother and his fiancé think he is totally unsuitable match for her, she has her own ideas about who she wants as a husband. In her mind, she does not see his reputation, lack of fortune or title as an impediment.
The action soon moves to Melton Hall, the Crewe country seat in Leicestershire, where Charlotte is staying with her brother and his future in-laws during the holidays. The fox hunting season is in full swing and even though Augusta thought Captain Middleton was an unsuitable husband material for Charlotte, she overlooks his faults and invites him too. He is, after all, the keenest rider in England and a retired officer in the 11th Hussars, their neighbor John Spencer, 5th Earl of Spencer’s regiment. Also in the neighborhood for the season is a surprising new resident, Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, the famous European beauty and horsewoman who has escaped the confines of the Hapsburg court and arrived with her royal entourage, including a pet monkey. Obsessed with her looks, the eccentric Empress is a grandmother but has the face and figure of an ingénue in her first bloom. With a strict diet and exercise regimen she has fought back time, but is still continually anxious about her looks. “Beauty was her gift, her weapon and her power, and she dreaded its passing.” p 111
Bay is pressed into service by Spencer to pilot the Empress during the hunting season. Reluctantly he agrees and soon meets the enigmatic “Sisi” whose skill in the hunting field impresses everyone, even Bay. A mutual attraction quickly builds into an infatuation by him, which begs little prompting by her to grow into a full-blown affair between the Empress and her pilot. Regardless, he has true feelings for Charlotte and is confident that she will soon be his. His desire for both of these women has him questioning himself.
“Bay had never thought of himself as a bad person before, not now he wondered what sort of person he really was: the devil in the mirror or the noble-looking young man in Charlotte’s photograph?” p 167
The Empress is not like any other woman he has ever met, “her rank and status made him uncertain.” Here is a beautiful woman in total control of any situation and that intrigues him. Charlotte on the other hand was no challenge; she is easily won and accepts his proposal, entering into a secret engagement until she reaches her majority and receives control of her fortune.
Charlotte returns to London to assist her mentor with an upcoming photographic exhibition. After developing her own pictures taken of Bay and the Empress at Melton, Charlotte’s new friend Caspar notices how ardently Bay is gazing at the Empress and the truth is suddenly so clear to her. Bay loves the Empress and only wants Charlotte for her fortune.
Wrought with aristocratic opulence, social ambition and emotional desire, The Fortune Hunter was a delicious indulgence for me. I adore historical fiction based on real people and Goodwin has eloquently introduced me to an era in British and Austrian history that I had never delved into before. The atmosphere of the residences and the descriptions of clothing were refreshing, but it was the exciting action scenes of fox hunting and the white-knuckle final steeplechase at The Grand National that were the most thrilling scenes.
If this beautifully written novel lacked anything, it was romantic tension and a bit more framing of a woman’s place in society at the beginning. We learn from Charlotte’s family that Bay is a rake placing us on guard for our heroine. Is this the truth or rumors? Charlotte is young and naïve when it comes to love and Bay wins her affection and trust so easily. In turn Bay is won over by the Empress equally as fast. I would like to have experienced more inner-turmoil and tension before each romance. Later in the novel Charlotte’s friend Caspar sums it up perfectly.
“Carlotta mia, every romance needs a little tension. If the gallant captain turns his head and sees you gazing at him as you are now, he will know precisely what is in your heart, but if he turns to see you confiding in me, well, he will be confused, and that would not such a bad thing. Everybody desires a thing more when it is not straightforward.” p 325
Another minor quibble involved some of the horse facts. I realize I have an unfair advantage being a former equestrian and most readers will not care that horses cannot jump twelve foot hedges, nor, (spoiler alert) that a fifteen hand mare is the most unlikely horse to win the Grand National. Not that it could not happen, mind you, it is just REALLY a long shot. Maybe that was the author’s point, paralleling the love story’s happy conclusion?
What makes this novel more than your run-of-the-mill historical romance? Goodwin’s keen eye for focusing the action like a film director—and an hysterical cameo appearance by Her Majesty, Queen Victoria herself of course. Witty humor always wins me over. Oh, and a beautiful cover. Like Sisi I am very shallow.
First published as a magazine serial of twenty-two installments in Household Words edited by her mentor Charles Dickens, North and South was later expFirst published as a magazine serial of twenty-two installments in Household Words edited by her mentor Charles Dickens, North and South was later expanded by Mrs. Gaskell into the format we know today and publish in book format in 1855. The story explores some of Gaskell’s favorite topics: social division and class struggles, religious faith and doubt, and the changing landscape of mid-Victorian England from an agricultural nation to industrial giant. Interlaced in these conflicts are genuine characters as passionate in their social convictions as they are in their quest for understanding and love.
Opening with the wedding of her vivacious cousin Edith Shaw to Captain Lennox, our nineteen year-old heroine Miss Margaret Hale is at an important juncture in her life. Raised in London by her wealthy Aunt Shaw, her duties as companion to her cousin are now over and she returns to her family as an educated and sophisticated young lady. Her parents live in Helstone, an idyllic rural Hampshire village where her father is the local Church of England minister and her mother a former county belle. Higher born than her husband she married for love against her family’s wishes. They lead a comfortable, but frugal life until her father’s decision to leave the church on principal; uprooting his family to the only opportunity available to them. His former Oxford tutor Mr. Bell has connections in Milton-Northern, an industrial city of cotton mills and coal smoke in the north of England, a far cry from the comforts, sunny climes and verdant countryside of the south in Hampshire. On the same day of Margaret’s fathers shocking announcement, Henry Lennox a young lawyer and brother of Edith’s husband visits the Hales in Helstone with the objective of proposing marriage to Margaret. Because she feels no affection other than friendship for him, his offer is rejected.
Margaret: ‘I have never thought of–you, but as a friend. I like to think of you so; but I am sure I could never think of you as anything else. Pray, let us both forget that all this’ (‘disagreeable,’ she was going to say, but stopped short) ‘conversation has taken place.’
He paused before he replied. Then, in his habitual coldness of tone, he answered:
Lennox: ‘Of course, as your feelings are so decided, and as this conversation has been so evidently unpleasant to you, it had better not be remembered. That is all very fine in theory, that plan of forgetting whatever is painful, but it will be somewhat difficult for me, at least, to carry it into execution.’
The Hale’s are aided in their search for a new home in Milton by Mr. Bell’s tenant John Thornton, a young successful mill owner who has worked his way up from working class to respectable tradesman after the tragic death of his father when he was fifteen. The ladies find Milton smoky and stifling, especially Mrs. Hale and her personal maid Dixon who are always ready to complain about the dirty air, the unsophisticated town and its lowly people. Because of their reduced circumstances and the lack of help in a mill town that can offer higher wages to young girls, Margaret fills in as maid with the household duties. Margaret is happy to help, but her mother is horrified that her daughter, a lady, must work as a menial. To support his family Mr. Hale has found work as a tutor. One of his best students is John Thornton who is eager to improve himself and catch up on his education. Mr. Hale invites him to tea much to the bemusement of Margaret and Mrs. Hale who are arrogant and cold to him, believing him below their notice. Margaret is outspoken, voicing her opinions to him of Milton, their odd northern customs, and critical of Mr. Thornton’s comments about the differences in the south. Margaret thinks he is coarse and harsh with his workers. He thinks she is beautiful and intriguing, but proud and full of airs for someone new, poor and uninformed.
Margaret: ‘That is a great admission,’ said Margaret, laughing. ‘When I see men violent and obstinate in pursuit of their rights, I may safely infer that the master is the same that he is a little ignorant of that spirit which suffereth long, and is kind, and seeketh not her own.’
John: ‘You are just like all strangers who don’t understand the working of our system, Miss Hale,’ said he, hastily. ‘You suppose that our men are puppets of dough, ready to be moulded into any amiable form we please. You forget we have only to do with them for less than a third of their lives; and you seem not to perceive that the duties of a manufacturer are far larger and wider than those merely of an employer of labour: we have a wide commercial character to maintain, which makes us into the great pioneers of civilisation.’
As Margaret begins to acclimate to her new home, she makes friends with Nicolas Higgins, one of the mill workers and his sickly daughter Bessy. They are skeptical of her intentions when she visits and very proud not to take charity. Through them she comes to understand the hard working conditions in the mills and sees the result of their unhealthy environment in Bessy, whose work from a young age has infected her lungs from inhaling the cotton fluff that floats through the factory. Mrs. Hale’s health is also in steady decline and the doctor warns Margaret that there is not much more time before she is gone. Margaret keeps this news to herself and shoulders the burden as she has done to protect each of her parents from bad news. With his urging, John Thornton’s mother begrudgingly makes a social call at the Hales with her daughter Fanny, privately offering her assistance with her mother to Margaret.
In turn, Margaret visits Mrs. Thornton at their home next to the mill and finds herself in the middle of a workers strike. Desperate to fill mill orders and keep his business solvent, Mr. Thornton has brought in cheaper Irish workers to break the strike and an angry mob has amassed outside the mill ready to riot and kill the blackleg workers in protest. Margaret admonishes Thornton to talk to the crowd and appease their anger.
Margaret: ‘Mr. Thornton,’ said Margaret, shaking all over with her passion, ‘go down this instant, if you are not a coward. Go down and face them like a man. Save these poor strangers, whom you have decoyed here. Speak to your workmen as if they were human beings. Speak to them kindly. Don’t let the soldiers come in and cut down poor-creatures who are driven mad. I see one there who is. If you have any courage or noble quality in you, go out and speak to them, man to man.’
But, it is too late. A stone thrown from the crowd intended for Thornton strikes Margaret in the head instead. The crowd is hushed and shocked as Margaret lies on the ground. The army arrives to violently disperse the crowd and Thornton carries the unconscious and bleeding body of Margaret inside. At this moment, he realizes how much he loves her. Against his mother’s wishes, he is compelled to ask her to marry him and visits her at her home the next day. She has recovered enough to be repulsed by his offer and flatly refuse him. He is crushed.
John: ‘One word more. You look as if you thought it tainted you to be loved by me. You cannot avoid it. Nay, I, if I would, cannot cleanse you from it. But I would not, if I could. I have never loved any woman before: my life has been too busy, my thoughts too much absorbed with other things. Now I love, and will love. But do not be afraid of too much expression on my part.’
Of course Gaskell has built up to this moment so beautifully that we are crestfallen by Margaret’s reaction to his admission of love. It is the axis of the novel. She despises him and accuses him of ungentlemanly behavior, the worst insult to throw at a man trying to win the heart of a lady. He is hurt yet dignified in rejection. That is indeed an act of a gentleman that she does not recognize yet.
How these two strong minded and opposing personalities will come together, and we are never in doubt that they will, is one of the most moving and satisfying love stories that I have ever read. Often compared to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Gaskell’s North and South parallels many of the same misunderstanding and misconceptions that the two protagonists go through to reach mutual respect and love. This was the first Gaskell novel that I have read, and her style, while more effusive and descriptive than Austen’s was a welcome surprise. Interlaced with this study of the diametric personalities are the differences in the lifestyles from agricultural southern England to the industrial north. Her characterizations were so detailed and real, that I cared deeply about the outcome of each of them. I recommend North and South highly. It will remain one of my cherished novels that I reread regularly. That is the greatest compliment an author can hope for. This wonderful audio book read by Clare Willie enhanced my enjoyment of this classic novel considerably.
To prime myself for Return to Cranford, the new Masterpiece Classic sequel to last year’s award-winning mini-series Cranford on PBS, I wanted to readTo prime myself for Return to Cranford, the new Masterpiece Classic sequel to last year’s award-winning mini-series Cranford on PBS, I wanted to read Mrs. Gaskell’s original novel that it was adapted from. Since I am always short of reading time, I chose instead to listen to an audio recording, my favorite pastime during my commute to work. After a bit of research on Cranford audio book recordings, I settled on the Naxos edition. From my experience with their recording of Jane Austen’s novels I knew the quality would be superior. I was not disappointed.
A witty and poignant portrait of small town life in an early Victorian-era English village, Cranford was first published in 1851 as a serial in the magazine Household Words edited by Charles Dickens. Inspired by author Elizabeth Gaskell’s (1810-1865) early life in Knutsford in Cheshire where she was raised by an aunt after her mother’s death and father’s subsequent re-marriage, the novel revolves around the narrator Miss Mary Smith and the Amazons of the community: the authoritative Miss Deborah Jenkyns and her kindhearted but timid younger sister Matty, the always well informed Miss Miss Pole and the self-important aristocratic Mrs. Jamieson. This gentle satire of village life does not supply much of a plot – but amazingly it does not matter. Gaskell has the incredible talent of making everyday occurrences and life events totally engrossing. Miss Matty’s conservative friends, the middle-aged spinsters and widows of Cranford, do not want their quaint life and traditions altered one bit. They like Cranford just as it has always been, therefore when the industrial revolution that swept through England in the 1840’s encroaches upon their Shangri-La, they lament and bustle about attempting to do everything in there power to stop the evil railroad’s arrival. Gaskell is a deft tactician at dry humor, not unlike her predecessor Jane Austen, and the comedy in Cranford balanced with a bit of tragedy is its most endearing quality.
This unabridged audio book recording is aptly read by Claire Willie whose sensitive and lyrical interpretation of Gaskell’s narrative enhanced my enjoyment of the story by two fold. Her rendering of the different characters with change of timbre and intonation was charmingly effective. My favorite character was of course the kindhearted Miss Matty. Even though she is of a certain age she has a child-like naïveté refreshingly seeing her friends and her world in simple terms. In opposition to our present day lives of cell-phones, blackberries and information overload, a trip to Cranford was a welcome respite. I recommend it highly.
2010 marks the 200th anniversary of author Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell nee Stevenson’s birth on 29 September 1810 in Chelsea, which was then on the outskirts of London. In celebration of her bi-centenary, Naxos AudioBooks will be releasing three additional recordings of her novels: North and South in February again read by Claire Willis, Wives and Daughters in March read by Patience Tomlinson and Cousin Phillis in May read by Joe Marsh. Happily, I will be enjoying many hours of great Gaskell listening this year.